I was a little bothered to see that Peter Beinart had written, The Rise of the New New Left. My concern was that he had scooped me, because I have been working on book about the New Democratic movement. But there was nothing to fear. For one thing, Beinart seems to buy the existing narrative that the New Democrats were a rational response to the Reagan “Revolution.” While it is undoubtedly true that it was a response, it was not a rational response.
The article is worth reading, because it is downright inspiring. He argues that the liberal future is bright because the Millennials are so liberal, especially on economic issues because during their whole lives, the economy really has not worked for the vast majority of Americans. That’s music to my ears. Even the focus on economic issues is wonderful to hear. And his thesis—America is going to get substantially more liberal in the coming two decades—is almost certainly true.
Where I part company with him is in his (implicit) belief that the political elites follow the people. Sure, to some extent they do. And once the voting public is 65% liberal, you can bet that the politicians will move to the left. But I don’t think that the Millennials are really that much more liberal than their parents were. Sure, if you ask older people whether “socialism” or “capitalism” is better, they will pick “capitalism” in large numbers. That’s because these words have been so propagandized as to be meaningless. But now or 20 or 40 years ago, if you described the systems in the United States and Sweden, large majorities would pick the Swedish system.
We all know how we got the Reagan “Revolution.” Reagan got into power because the economy was bad. He became a hero because he got credit for the economic boom created when Paul Volcker lowered interest rates at the Federal Reserve. That is, not coincidentally, the change from the high interest rates that got Reagan elected in the first place. So Reagan’s effect on the country is almost entirely negative. And that was clear enough by the early 1990s. What I take exception to is the idea that Clinton got elected because he was a conservative Democrat. Almost any Democrat would have won in 1992. Clinton also gets lots of credit for a good economy that had little to do with him.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans remained liberal in their economic policy preferences. Unfortunately, both the Democratic and Republican elites learned the wrong lessons from those political successes. Republicans learned that cutting taxes on the rich is great for the economy. (It isn’t.) Democrats learned that being economically conservative allows them to be politically competitive. (It doesn’t.) And so now we have two political parties that are well to the right of the people on economic issues. There is a way forward, however. Maybe Bill de Blasio is its vanguard. It wouldn’t surprise me, because the current situation cannot hold.